A king's murder during German colonial rule defines part of the history of Douala - an African megacity. It's just one legend incorporated into projects by a Cameroonian princess campaigning for contemporary artworks.
On the banks of the Wouri River, among the banana trees and towering palms, are clusters of small houses covered by weathered, corrugated-iron rooftops. Despite the tropical humidity, small numbers of children are playing soccer. In this small settlement on the edge of Cameroon's megacity Douala, few people might expect to find a contemporary art installation.
But here in this landscape is a walk-in sound installation by artist Lucas Grandin, consisting of a three-story, wooden scaffold planted with luscious greenery. Among the greenery, a network of narrow hose pipes littered with tiny perforations releases droplets of water at varying intervals. The tapping, beating and drumming sounds produced by the water is something to behold, even in the middle of the heavy rainfall season.
An abundance of water - but nothing to drink
The person responsible for this sound garden installation is Marylin Douala-Bell. She is a princess belonging to a royal family in the south of the country. She is also president of doual'art, the only center for contemporary art in Cameroon. In 2010, Douala-Bell curated an impressive contemporary art project centering around the subject of water.
The city - a new phenomenon
How to handle water resources is a key social and political issue for Marylin Doula-Bell. That, along with other current political debates, represent the major themes of her art projects. Her ultimate aim is to make people aware of how they can make a positive contribution to community life in the city.
Art reflecting life
On the surface, an artistic approach to the situation in the African city may seem rather superficial, absurd even. But Marylin Douala-Bell gave it a shot und was surprised by just how intensely local people on the street engaged with the art works. "They begin to reflect on their own lives - asking questions about the artworks' materials, their shapes, and the discourse conducted by the artists. In that way, they are thinking and talking about very similar things."
Fears that the works would be targeted by vandals, however, have been allayed by the high level of public interest in the works. The taxi driver, for example, who drove this reporter through Douala in search of these artworks in public spaces, took the opportunity to photograph a work by Cameroonian artist Baby Kouo Eyango, with which he wasn't yet familiar. The work consists of paddles fishers normally use with their canoes, but in this work, they are planted in the ground - standing upright like swords in the middle of a small green.
Execution at the hands of the Germans
The princess' own family history is heavily intertwined with the colonial history of Cameroon. In 1914, her great-grandfather, King Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, was murdered by German colonial forces. "This event belongs to the history and heritage which forms modern day Cameroon," she said. "It is a painful but interesting history. My Great-grandfather fought very hard between 1900 and 1914 to preserve the rights which had been certified in 1884."
Lost history, lost identity
It was in 1884 that Germany declared Cameroon a "protected" territory. But forced labor, the compulsory relocation of people and communities, and the violent destruction of towns and villages were part of everyday life in Cameroon. Germany's colonial rule ended in 1916 when French and later British colonial forces moved in.
Cameroon finally gained independence in 1960 but decades of colonial rule continue to influence the mentality of the majority of the population. In viewing their own history, Cameroonians have often seen themselves as the perpetual victims of colonial aggression. Marylin Douala-Bell believes this is a direct result of failed political policy in the area of education. "Nothing has been done to enable us to rebuild our own identity," she noted. "We have lost our memories and our history. We have lost the ability to say that we are able to develop a new way of life, the ability to resist and enter into confrontation."
Remembering for the future
Through various cultural projects, Marylin Douala-Bell hopes to remind the people of Cameroon that they were once a self-confident and proud nation that - like her great-grandfather - fought against colonial oppression.
Just like Marylin Douala-Bell herself, who has been campaigning for funding for contemporary art and history projects in Douala for the last twenty years. One of her successes includes a sculpture by Cameroonian artist Joseph-Francis Sugégné. The work depicts a friendly giant made from pieces of scrap, standing on one leg, a globe proudly resting upon his head. The piece was originally highly controversial, but has meanwhile become a city landmark the locals like to boast about. After all, the sculpture is entitled "La Nouvelle Liberté" - the new freedom.
Author: Aya Bach / hw
Editor: Louisa Schaefer